The summer of pain
Severe drought tested Kansans seventy years ago
Leon Coker spent the summer he graduated from De Soto High School jumping the Kansas River as he irrigated cantaloupes he was growing in De Soto's East Bottoms.
"You could walk all the way across it," he said of the river in the summer of 1936. "There were just a few small little streams you could jump over."
That the river had any water for Coker's use was surprising, considering the year of his graduation was essentially a summer without rain in Kansas and sweltering heat, marking it as the worst of the hot and dry decade that came to be known as the Dirty Thirties.
That year, the spring rains ended May 24. For the next three-plus months, Douglas and Johnson counties recorded less than two inches of rainfall.
The summer's first triple-digit temperatures were recorded in June, a month with no rain. Before the three summer months of June, July and August were over, there would be a record 54 days of 100-degree-plus temperatures. Nine days would exceed 110 and the state's all-time high of 121 degrees was recorded July 18 in Fredonia and July 24 in Alton.
"That was a hot year," said Jay Grosdidier, who spent his 19th summer working on his father's homestead 51/2 miles south of Eudora. "I was young enough that nothing worried me too much in those days, but that was a rough summer.
"They talk about the good old days, but those weren't very good."
A dry decade
The prolonged drought started with the decade and included the then record-breaking year of 1934.
U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist Charles Perry said his research has led him to conclude the drought stemmed from cycles of "that big orange ball in the sky." His research of historical flows in the upper Mississippi River basin indicates that weather in the Great Plains is associated with a 22-year cycle of peak solar activity.
The more activity on the sun, the hotter its surface and, eventually, the warmer the north Pacific, Perry said. The warm Pacific air contributes to the establishment of high pressure over the Plains that sucks up hot, dry air over Kansas and neighboring states.
Conversely, cooler north Pacific air that follows periods of minimum solar activity (approximately 11 years after the solar peak) establishes cool, wet weather patterns in the Plains.
The dry, hot 1930s fit his identified pattern, as do the current hot, dry conditions, Perry said. There are other similarities, he said. Both 1936 and 2006 saw heavy flooding in the Northeastern states in the late spring and early summer.
Whatever its root cause, the drought years could not have came at a worse time for Midwest farmers. It made worse the deprivations of the Great Depression, which started with the Stock Market crash of October 1929.
"It was all rough times," Carrol Gerstenberger said, remembering farm commodity prices so depressed his future father-in-law sent a railroad car of Weaver Bottoms potatoes to Chicago only to learn the shipping cost exceeded the price fetched at the destination.
The drought, or "drouth" as it was called in 1936 newspapers, got its first mention in the 1936 Eudora News with an item in June noting a good wheat crop but also the abundance of grasshoppers that appeared with the dry and arid conditions.
"They ate everything," Gerstenberger said. "They'd get on the hedge posts and eat the bark on them until the posts turned yellow."
Effective pesticides didn't become available until a decade later, following World War II. However, The Eudora News item noted Douglas County Farm Bureau extension agent Deal Six had the "poison" sodium arseite available that when mixed with molasses, water and grain could treat 20 acres.
Grosdidier also saw hedge posts chewed down to yellow wood from grasshoppers. He also confirmed The Eudora News account of the year's wheat crop, a dry-land crop harvested before the drought and heat got their full grip on the Midlands.
As the heat settled in during July, Grosdidier saw the alfalfa that was to feed the family's dairy cows wither from the drought and fall to grasshoppers. But he said one family member found a way to turn the insect infestation into an advantage.
"My brother had some turkeys," he said. "He'd turn them out, and they'd clean out the grasshoppers pretty good."
The heat really started taking hold in July. The July 9 issue of The Eudora News observed a new record high of 110 degrees limited crowds at the Fourth of July celebration. The next day, a Sunday, also topped 100 "but was not quite so warm, and the wind did not carry the blister it contained on the Fourth," it was reported.
One week later, the newspaper noted it was 112 degrees in the shade July 14 and 15 and that "the drouth in Douglas County just about has its work done." The writer noted that pastures, gardens and crops were dried up and although early corn was tasseling and putting on ears, nothing would come of the crop unless it rained.
Farmers were keenly aware of the need. Frances Lawhead, whose father Henry Couch, grew cantaloupes on a farmstead just west of Coker's irrigated land, said desperate farmers got together and prayed for rain.
It didn't help.
The Eudora News reported an inch of rain, "The only rain of any consequence since May 24," fell in late July. Two storms, one July 18 and another in August blew through Kansas that summer from the northwest, plunging temperatures from triple-digits to the 70s in 30 minutes, knocking down trees and power lines but providing "only a mere sprinkle," The Eudora News reported.
But the two storms did kick up dust. Eastern Kansas didn't get the huge mile-high "black blizzard" dust storms that plagued western Kansas, eastern Colorado and the panhandle regions of Texas and Oklahoma during the 1930s, but the dry winds carried plenty of loose dirt that summer to eastern Kansas and beyond.
"It was so dry in western Kansas, we'd get that dust in here," Grosdidier said. "The next day it would be dust from Oklahoma -- red dust from Oklahoma one day, black dust from western Kansas the next.
"We didn't have storm windows. That dust got everywhere. Mom put wet dish clothes on the windows to keep it out. Mom was good at taking care of us. She put wet towels over our dinners while we were out working. It would drift in a little bit and get on our food."
The dust was ever present, Coker said.
"When you woke up in the morning, you'd see your outline of your head where you laid it down on the pillow," he said.
His mother strung a wet sheet over a backyard clothesline to control the dust as the family slept under the tent-like arrangement, Coker said.
Most families fled their homes at night for the cooler outdoors that summer. Lawhead and Grosdidier said their families slept on blankets or mattresses thrown on the lawn. Gerstenberger's wife, EvaBelle, said she slept on a hayrack her father brought into the yard, while her husband remembers sleeping on top of the porch.
"Anywhere to get a little breeze," Gerstenberger said.
But with temperatures remaining above 80 degrees a record 18 days that summer, sleep remained fitful even under the stars.
"Sometimes, it was midnight before it cooled off enough you could sleep," Lawhead said. "In Kansas City, the people living in apartments were sleeping in the parks."
As for the days, EvaBelle remembered her family got up early to do chores on their Weaver Bottoms farm while it was still relatively cool and then fled inside from the sun.
"We hurried up and got our work done early then shut down the house and pulled down the shades to keep it cool," she said.
Others remembered seeking relief outside under shade trees.
"We sat outside under trees fanning ourselves with papers," Leon Coker's wife, Myrtle, said of the family farm in Prairie Center.
Air conditioning was nonexistent in De Soto and Eudora and even fans were rare. His father's farm didn't have electricity to drive fans, Grosdidier said. Lawhead said her family had one electric fan, but her mother only used it when cooking.
A dip in the Kaw
De Soto families found another way to cool off, Coker said. A sand plant operating on the Kaw just west of the current Engineered Air plant created a pool in the shallow-running river.
"Every evening, it seemed like half the town would take a bath in the river," he said.
Incredibly, the drought continued unchecked through August, a month that saw the temperature soar above 100 degrees for a record 19-straight days from Aug. 9 to Aug 27.
The Olathe Mirror reported Aug. 27 that rainfall for the year was 17 inches below normal. Not surprisingly, it reported many wells were drying up.
That was not the case on his family farm, Gerstenberger said. The new 75-foot deep well not only supplied his family but also helped with the start of a local industry.
"They were drilling a lot of gas wells south of Eudora," he said. "They had old steam rigs that used a lot of water. They usually got it out of the streams, but the Wakie (Wakarusa River) couldn't furnish it. They ran cast-iron pipe from our well all the way out there, pumping around the clock. That wonderful old well never went dry."
Grosdidier said that was not true of the wells on his father's farm. Fortunately, they were able to transport water from a spring on a neighbor's property that ran throughout the drought, he said.
"He let us use it," Grosdidier said. "We all helped each other out."
His father and uncle ran the De Soto general store they opened in 1904 through the Depression, Coker said. During tough times like the summer of 1936, trade was reduced to almost a barter system, he said.
"People brought in what little eggs, butter and milk they could spare and traded for flour and sugar," he said. "It was a real tight deal."
Customers were honest, and paid back in better times credit extended to them during the drought, Coker said.
His father was square with the books, too, Coker said. His father paid orphaned children the credit their father earned from eggs so that they could pay for his funeral, he said.
As for his cantaloupes, Coker said the irrigation system his father installed at the start of the summer brought in a good crop that he sold in Kansas City.
Lawhead doesn't remember whether her father had cantaloupes to pick in his abutting field, but she said it was the last year he tried to farm the river bottomland on a part-time basis. After 1936, he became a year-round over-the-road truck driver, she said.
Grosdidier said his father wrote off the year's corn crop, harvesting it for what fodder the withered stocks could offer. It was mixed with molasses and fed to the cattle, he said.
But that created another problem.
"We didn't buy hybrid seed back then," he said. "In those days when you planted, you went to the corn crib, picked some good ears and used them.
"We didn't have any seed to put up in 1936."
Both the Olathe Mirror and Eudora News informed farmers that federal relief loans for cash and seed were available through local Farm Bureau agents. A report to President Franklin Roosevelt by the Great Plains Drought Committee of August 1936 reported 81 percent of farmers in the Great Plains states made use of some type of relief from 1930 to 1936.
Grosdidier said he didn't know what his father did for seed, but knowing him he probably had money put back to buy seed from Iowa.
The heat persisted through late August into September. Lawhead said her parents drove her to a downtown Kansas City, Mo., department store for new school clothes. In the days before freeways that was an hour drive from De Soto, she said.
"I came down with measles that summer," she said. "My mom had my dad roll up all the windows on the way back. I like to smothered before we got home."
Grosdidier said he remembered triple-digit days in September after school started. But the rains did return that month, starting a wet fall with rains delaying planting of winter wheat, The Eudora News reported.
The Depression and dry conditions didn't end with 1936, but the worst was over. In the late 1930s, the economy began to rebound as government spending increased with world tensions. And although there would be more dry years, nothing approached 1936.
The teens who experienced that year agree it toughened them for what lay ahead.
"It was rough," Gerstenberger said. "I've been through some rough spots, but I'm glad I did because it makes everything easy now."